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Federal Government to Airlines: Keep Flying Those Empty Planes

Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The CARES Act provides tens of billions of dollars in grants to help keep passenger airlines out of bankruptcy, and those grants come with two key conditions: Airlines are supposed to keep their workers on the payroll, and they’re supposed to keep flying to every U.S. city in their networks. But as planes often fly nearly empty, airlines have been asking the government for waivers of that second requirement. Did Congress really intend to require Delta Air Lines to maintain service to Worcester, Massachusetts — with flights averaging just one daily passenger each way in the first 22 days of April, according to the airline — when Boston Logan Airport is less than an hour’s drive away? Delta is hoping the answer is no, but the Department of Transportation has been generally turning back similar requests from Delta’s competitors, saying the law already provides them financial relief for running unprofitable, low-demand routes, and thus unprofitability and low demand are not good excuses for cutting service.

The CARES Act does allow airlines to seek waivers of the requirement to continue service, and some of the arguments airlines have made for those waivers have been successful. For example, Hawaii has imposed a 14-day quarantine on inbound travelers to the state, a rule that has made flights from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii both unpopular and logistically challenging. American Airlines continues to fly once daily between Los Angeles and Honolulu, but the flight requires two full flight crews; one crew rests on the way to Hawaii and then operates the flight back, so no American Airlines personnel has to enter Hawaii and trigger quarantine. In light of that unique situation and the desire of Hawaiian officials to reduce inbound travel, the Department of Transportation has allowed mainland-based carriers like American to drop service to destinations on the neighbor islands, such as Lihue and Kona.

Some other arguments are working, too: American will be allowed to terminate service to Duluth, Minnesota, because it announced its intention to do so in early February for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus. Airlines are still being allowed to stop and start seasonal service on their usual schedules; if they have ordinarily operated to places like Nantucket in the summer, they will still have to do so, but not until June. They don’t have to keep serving ski-resort airports where they would normally end service in March or April. But the seasonal stoppage of service needs to have been preplanned. American has protested that markets like Vail and Aspen do not have demand to support even the extremely limited service the airline would normally provide between the winter and summer tourism peaks. The DOT was unmoved by that argument and has instructed the airline to continue serving these resort towns through the spring.

Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

As Gary Leff notes, Delta is trying a novel argument for suspending low-demand routes, after the government rejected arguments from United and JetBlue that routes should be suspended simply because of very low demand. Delta says operating nearly empty planes is a problem from a public-health perspective: Airport employees are being needlessly exposed to flight crews (and a handful of passengers) that come and go for these flights. Delta says permitting a cessation of service to airports like Worcester and Melbourne, Florida, would “protect the health and safety of airport staff by reducing their exposure to the health risks associated with COVID- 19.” But as Leff points out, there’s something odd about that argument: Isn’t a busy flight even worse from a public-health perspective than a nearly empty one? Doesn’t this amount to an argument that Delta’s whole business model is currently unsafe?

Of course, I think Leff is right that Delta’s argument here is just a pretext: “Almost nobody wants this flight” isn’t an argument that the DOT will take, so the airline had to come up with another one. But unlike in Hawaii, local officials in many of these places do not welcome a reduction in air service and will fight to keep Delta operating. The executive director of Melbourne’s airport wrote to the DOT, saying the airport is taking appropriate steps to protect staff and stop the spread of the virus, and urging the department not to let Delta stop service. That means Delta’s flights between Atlanta and Melbourne — averaging a relatively robust 14 passengers each way — will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Government to Airlines: Keep Flying Those Empty Planes